As the summer comes to a rather pitiful end, I am feeling a horrible back-to-school feeling coming over me. Well do I remember the feeling of only having a few days left before I had to return to the routine of school, after the slippery summer weeks. New teachers had to be faced, spontaneity was dying, and impending doom generally descended like the axe in Poe's Pit and the Pendulum. Can you suggest a literary remedy for this feeling?
Dear Sinking Feeling ,
There are few things more enjoyable than reading about other people's suffering, if you know that a happy ending is guaranteed. Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes fits the bill perfectly. Tom Brown leaves an idyllic country childhood to attend Rugby School, where he must learn to survive the bullying attentions of Flashman and his cronies. He endures a deliberate burning by these brutal older boys, and experiences countless humiliations before getting his own back with the moral high ground. With his friend George Arthur, he grows into a hardworking, kind, morally upright young man. The author has been accused of being a tad on the preachy side, but the tortures endured are certainly painful and therefore gripping, and you will surely be taken back to your own schooldays to compare them favorably.
A tale to lure you into the rythm of the academic year gently, but with a shiver in your spine, is The Secret History by Donna Tartt. If you have miraculously not read it yet, you are in for an absolute treat, and if you have, a re-read is almost as good as your first time. Tartt seduces you with her slow, polished prose, into the University world of Hampden College, Vermont. Six students studying Classics form a closely knit group, all in awe of their charismatic tutor. Things begin to go wrong when they discover that one of their group recently killed a farmer in Italy, and their least popular member, Bunny, threatens exposure. The events that ensue have you glued to the book, and you will hardly notice the fall of the leaves outside. Your stomach will lurch for other reasons than a reminder of classroom nerves.
Now pick up a book that will show you the horrors of a permanent holiday world. Cocaine Nights by J G Ballard is a wonderfully depressing book about a gated holiday community in Spain, where the seemingly perfect balance of leisure and play is shown to exist on top of a labyrinth of dark secrets. The novel hinges around Charles Prentice, who ventures to the resort in order to rescue his brother, who has oddly confessed to a series of crimes, and is to be found in cheerful captivity. As Charles investigates, he discovers a multilayered criminal underworld that seethes beneath the charming life of peaceful hedonism. Read this, and you might never wish to take a holiday again, indeed you will have a spring in your step as you head to your comparatively unthreatening work place.
Now that you are resigned to the safety and routine of work, you could happily fall into the acutely observed "Office Hours" by Lucy Kellaway. Set in the London Offices of Atlantic Energy, an oil giant with a marble atrium, the action centres around two women who have passion-driven but doomed affairs with men in the same office. One is a single mother, one a 43 year old, and the conspiratorial excitement of the clandestine encounters is fabulously breathless and tense.The book is in three parts- 'Temptation, Addiction, Withdrawal' - which might give you a full dose of what you need to relax happily back into your work seat, where you can watch the encounters around you with renewed insight.
Ella Berthoud is a bibliotherapist at The School of Life. For more information about the service click here.